If you’re on the hunt for a gripping World War II character piece that explores the forgotten aftermath of the war, Kate Quinn’s new novel The Huntress is the perfect book for you.
Set in the years immediately following World War II (and with a large number of flashbacks to the war itself), The Huntress tells the story of a ruthless Nazi murderess who escapes to the United States in the wake of the war and the individuals, including an ex-Soviet female bomber pilot and an young aspiring photographer, who take it upon themselves to bring her to justice.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, mainly stories that take place in the lead up to, during, and in the aftermath of World War II. To me, these stories are some of the most fascinating because the war brought out the best and worst in humanity.
The Huntress is a prime example. One of the most fascinating aspects of this novel is the way it presents, discusses, and ruminates on responsibility and culpability. Humans do some pretty egregious things during wartime. Things they wouldn’t normally do in times of peace. The difficult part is figuring out what can be forgotten or even forgiven and what can’t.
Throughout this novel, my feelings toward two particular characters and their actions fluctuated wildly. On one hand, there’s the Huntress. Die Jägerin. She murdered a slew of people in cold blood during the war. People she didn’t have to. People who didn’t pose an immediate threat. When the novel reveals the extent of her actions, it’s hard not to hate her and everything she did.
AND YET, throughout the course of The Huntress, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for her. At times, I even found myself asking if it *would* be such a bad thing for her to escape and live a normal life in America. I thought this of a CRIMINAL. A MURDERESS. It’s stunning how many excuses we can make and believe for people so that we don’t have to face the awful truth of things that they’ve done. So we can forget.
The idea of people around the world striving to forget what happened during the war is one of the most pervasive themes of this novel. The characters, mainly the Nazi hunters, come up against this a lot, especially when interviewing witnesses and tracking down suspects. People want to forget the ugliness of the war (as well as their suffering through it) and move forward with their lives, which is understandable. But to move on like that is to forget about some of the most important lessons and terrible acts that came out of the war. To do that is to inevitably repeat history later, causing even more suffering.
In the context of the novel, to let the Huntress go free is to forget. To allow leniency for her crimes is to allow the opportunity for people to repeat her actions and take her path in the future.
My wavering on the Huntress’ character is a testament to Kate Quinn’s masterful writing. She not only made her point of not forgetting through the actions of certain characters but also through luring the reader in to that state of mind and then sort of pulling the rug out from underneath us, teaching us that lesson first hand.
Now I said there were two characters that affected me in this way. The second was far more subtle than the Huntress. Ian Graham, the journalist-turned-Nazi hunter, surprised me most out of all of the characters in that it’s easy to take his uprightness and affinity for moral high ground for granted. He spends the entirety of the novel struggling with the responsibility he out on himself and his drive to seek justice for his brother’s murder.
Like the reader, the Huntress and the other characters that surround him cause him to undergo a series of trials that test his willingness to forget the horrors of the war in order to guarantee the outcome he desires. In other words, he finds himself faced with the choice to compromise his morals and do what it takes to get the job done, just like the individuals he’s hunting did during World War II.
Though his struggle is subtler, perhaps, than the reader’s, it’s interesting to watch because it shows just how easy it is for all of us to commit some pretty terrible deeds if the justification is there or if we follow the call blindly. Though Ian and the Huntress weren’t my favorite characters of the novel, they were certainly the most impactful.
I may be in the minority on this, but my two favorite characters here are Jordan, the young budding photographer, and Tony, Ian’s right hand man. Both of them have such effervescent spirits and nuanced personalities that make any scene they’re a part of hard to look away from (or, in the context of reading, a difficult time to put the book down).
Jordan is a dutiful daughter who finds her responsibilities and devotion to her family to be at odds with her dreams. She spends the novel fighting against societal expectations and exploring who she wants to be. She’s also extremely passionate about photography, which is enough to inspire me to figure out what I’m passionate about myself (or pick my nice camera back up).
Tony, on the other hand, is very much a charmer. He’s pretty suave and very much a people-pleaser, getting his way more often than not. But while he’s all of those things, he’s not an asshole. He’s an intelligent and compassionate young man with a really complex and fascinating background that drives everything he does. He definitely charmed me from the get-go.
The one character that I’m sure most readers will point to as their favorite is Nina, the ex-Russian female bomber pilot and member of the infamous Night Witches. She has an incredibly fiery spirit and compelling story from start to finish. She’s very much a jigsaw puzzle on the outside (and through the eyes of other characters) but the chapters devoted to her life prior to the Huntress hunt put everything into perspective.
Not only that, but she’s a badass. She doesn’t take shit from anyone, is an incredibly skilled and passionate pilot, and doesn’t let anyone or anything stand in the way of the things she wants. Shrouded in mystery (and a little bit of mythology), she’s the lifeblood and driving force of this novel.
That being said, this novel is very much a character piece (hence my emphasis on the novel’s major players here in my review). It is not a gripping mystery or heart-pounding thriller. The Huntress is an introspective novel, diving into just what war does to people and drives people to do, before, during, and after. Though there are a handful of action scenes, the bulk of this book is quiet and thoughtful. It’s not your stereotypical World War II novel.
In addition to loving historical fiction, I’m a big fan of slow character-driven novels. I find them endlessly fascinating. However, I will say that, while I immensely enjoyed this novel, The Huntress moves a touch too slowly for its content matter. While I wanted to spend time with all of the characters and see everything come together, I had a hard time staying focused on my reading sometimes. I think part of that stems from this novel potentially being a hundred pages too long, even perhaps a little too much focus on Nina’s past (even though it’s a slice of World War II history not often discussed).
But, even so, The Huntress is definitely worth reading. Its pace doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s an expertly-researched and executed novel. Fans of well-done character pieces and World War II fiction need to pick this novel up right away. I’ll be recommending The Huntress and referencing it for years to come.